6 min read

Practice Report: Keep calm and… keep calm

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OKLAHOMA CITY –On the eve of the NBA Freaking Finals, Oklahoma City is a mess. Buzzing with anticipation, buzzing with excitement.

The biggest event in state history is about 24 hours away. The fans are jacked beyond belief, as they should be. But the players, the players have to keep cool. Keep a level head. Obviously they’re psyched to be playing in the NBA Finals, something they’ve all dreamed about, but it’s just another game and that’s the message they’re preaching.

It’s not helping matters that the Thunder are playing the Miami Heat and giving us maybe the biggest individual matchup in 20 years.

So yeah, no big deal. Just like the biggest NBA Finals ever are happening in OKC. Which naturally has everyone talking experience and age all over again.

“We’ve played a lot of big games,” said Kevin Durant. “Of course everybody is going to say it’s not our time, we’re too young, it’s going to happen eventually, but that’s not the approach we ever want to take with anything. I learned that when I was a kid.

“My mom always told me when I was going against older guys don’t let your age be the reason why you don’t succeed,” he continued. “I just want to, you know, like I said, take advantage of it. And we’ve played in a lot of games. We were too young to beat the Spurs, a great team, and we came out and accomplished that. We were too young to beat the Lakers, and we accomplished that, as well. We just want to keep thinking that we can do it and also knowing that it’s going to be a tough road, and we’ve got to be focused.”

Said Russell Westbrook: “It really doesn’t matter. I think the youth thing is kind of out of the window for us. I think we’ve got enough experience in the playoff atmosphere and playoff games to be able to have an opportunity to win games. We’re going to come out like any other team and play our game.”

You can’t hide age and the Thunder are certainly a bunch of kids, at least in terms of traditional NBA powerhouse teams. But they don’t act their age, either on the court or off. For example, the focus centering around this series is hovering over LeBron James and Durant, a star matchup fans and media are drooling over.

But as Durant was drilled with questions about LeBron, what he thinks about playing him, the size of the matchup or even past one-on-one Finals matchups he remembers, he woudn’t bite. He stuck to form, played it cool and never stepped out of character.

“First, all I think about is the Thunder versus the Heat, that’s all,” he said. “I know everybody in here is worried about the one‑on‑one match‑up, but I can’t really control that. All I can control is how hard I play and how we play as a team.”

“I mean, that’s a sexier match‑up, I guess,” Durant continued. “But I don’t read newspapers, I don’t get on Twitter anymore, I just focus on what I need to do and what we need to do as a team. To be honest, really, outside of me knowing what you guys are thinking, that’s all I’ve heard about the match‑up is from you guys.”

Durant’s answer on what Finals matchup he remembers most?

“I remember a team against a team,” he said.

It has to be tempting for Durant to get wrapped into the hot storyline. Not only is he chasing an NBA title, but he could payback the player that’s taken two MVP awards from him as well as the title of undisputed best player in the world. Durant could prove something in this series. He could prove that maybe the NBA’s individual crown should rest on his head.

But he’s smart enough to stay away from it all. As is Westbrook, his coach and all his teammates. They weren’t taking any bait. They have a message they preach and believe, and there won’t be any deviating from it. Especially not now.

This is the maiden voyage to the NBA Finals and while it’s a different animal than anything else they’ve ever faced, in the end, it’s just basketball. And the Thunder have proven throughout this postseason that they’ve grown and matured from the team that was eliminated by Dallas last season. They’re tough, they finish games, they stick together and they’re as resilient as any team in the game.

Here’s the thing: If the Thunder fall to the Heat, most will chalk it up to a learning experience, growing pains and inexperience. Instead of either celebrating the fact maybe the Heat were better or that the Thunder just didn’t perform, the crutch of youth and experience will be what everyone leans on for an explanation. It used to fit. But this Thunder team has proven time and again that it has what it takes. They have the mental toughness, have been through a number of situations, and most importantly, are extremely good.

Dwyane Wade put it simply: “Both teams have experienced basketball players. So I think it might be a little overrated.”

A few other notes and quotes:

  • Durant was asked about the bombing memorial: “It means a lot. It’s something that was tough for the city when it happened. Being somewhere, being in a community where you’re going to live here for a while, we want to know the history, everything that went down here in Oklahoma and how they moved past it. You can tell by what happened in those events that the city got closer and closer, and you can tell just by landing here in Oklahoma City, just meeting people in the airport, that this city is a tight knit family. With us coming here, it just made it even closer. It’s just a blessing to be a part of a great city even though they went through a tough tragedy.”
  • Dwyane Wade on Russell Westbrook: “I always say this is a very good team, but Russell Westbrook is what makes them very special, because there’s no one else like him in the NBA. I think he’s personally I think he’s the most athletic guy in the NBA for what he does and how he does it and how quick he does it. We’re going to have our hands full, and I’m going to have to guard him a lot and just try to give him different looks, and whoever else has to guard him, as well. But very tough cover, man.”
  • Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t confirm one way or the other if Chris Bosh would be starting or coming off the bench.
  • Derek Fisher on the Thunder being the favorite: “I guess if the people’s choice helps us win games, maybe I’d feel differently, but with all due respect, there’s not much that can do for us on the court when we’re playing against the Miami Heat. We’re in a good position in terms of the people’s choice being on our home court and having our home fans to be here to open up tomorrow night. But overall, at the end of the day, it’s about our mentality and our approach to the situation, and we’ll let those parts of it kind of take care of themselves.”
  • The Thunder’s floor had “The Finals” decals put on, but not the giant trophy around the logo. I sure hope that’s there tomorrow, because I was pretty pumped about seeing that.
  • It was kind of surreal to see The Finals decorated all over the arena. Not kind of. Completely, totally, incredibly surreal.
  • Scott Brooks: “We will embrace this challenge, but we’re not here just to be here. We’re here to win a championship.”
  • Brooks on maintaining the team concept through having superstars: “It’s never been a question. We’ve always done everything as a team. That’s what makes us a good team, that we defend as a team, we’re continuing to improve offensively as a team, but it’s always about our guys in the locker room. If anything I coach Kevin harder than the guy that doesn’t play because I’ve always felt that’s the way it should be done. You want to get on the guys that play most of the minutes instead of getting on the guys that play seven or eight minutes, and with our team that’s what we think. That’s what all of our thoughts are is about the team.”